Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Behind a Pane of Glass: Collective Memory in Woolf's Interwar London

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Behind a Pane of Glass: Collective Memory in Woolf's Interwar London

Article excerpt

Shop windows, car windows, house windows, ground-glass skylights, looking glasses, prosthetic eyes, lumps on the beach, fragments on the street, mantelpiece decor: the ubiquity of glass in Woolf's work offers us a prismatic reflection of the medium's centrality to nineteenth- and twentieth-century accounts of modernity. Critics have fixated on the very "thingness" of glass, its object-status, or the conditions of its materiality, situating Woolf's work within high modernist or wartime anxiety about either the breakability of glass or its scarcity in early twentieth-century urban spaces. (1) Some, alternatively, have highlighted the metaphorical implications of Woolf's use of glass, evocative of "moments of creative intensity," a figuration for the "reciprocal fusion between the perceiver and the perceived" (Lee 1984, 16) in her modernist experiments with consciousness, or even for art itself. (2) The split between material readings and metaphorical ones underscores glass's own paradoxical condition as medium and barrier, lens and object, the invisible thing making visible things. It highlights, as Judith Brown points out, how "blankness isn't, after all, identical to nothing" but "merely comes to represent nothing through the emptiness of its surface" (2008, 615). It also invites interrogation in light of the recent call to "take surface to mean what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts ... what insists on being looked at rather than what we must train ourselves to see through" (Best and Marcus 2009,9). But what do we do with the very surface that makes it impossible to look at without seeing through? What depths, if not those of "hidden, repressed" meanings, might lingering on the glass surfaces of Woolf's texts reveal? (3)

In this essay, I argue that Woolf plays with the perceptual oscillation between surface and depth that glass affords to demonstrate the limits and possibilities of temporal, spatial, and intersubjective relations in interwar London. Glass in some of Woolf's earlier work--as Elizabeth Outka's (2009) and Bill Browns (1999) readings of Night and Day (1919) and "Solid Objects" (1920), respectively, attest--draws our attention to the omnipresence of a certain glaring absence, that of World War I. All the more remarkable for the fact that the two texts, as both critics emphasize, were written in 1918, during or very shortly after the war, her "strategy of avoidance" by turns "reflected central cultural tropes from the war years ... responding not simply to Woolf's anxieties but to anxieties shared by the larger culture" (Outka 2009, 150) and provided "an account of the aesthetic ... that is a history of the senses fundamentally altered by the facts of wartime scarcity and postwar depression" (B. Brown 1999, 4). In her later work, glass continues to reveal the seeming transitivity between individuals and a larger culture through which anxieties are shared and senses altered, but it does so with the key difference of shifted vantage points in time. Woolf eventually brings the war up to the surface of her texts through characters like veteran Septimus Warren Smith, but in doing so she raises questions not only of individuals' and their larger culture's avoidance but also of their memories. In other words, Woolf s evocations of glass still alert us in a sense to the war's absence, but now that absence is not a matter of its being over there as much as it is its being over.

Paying particular attention to scenes of memory in the changing urban streetscape of Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and in her own unfinished memoir "A Sketch of the Past" (1941), I read Woolf's narrative strategies and use of glass in particular as nuancing both modernism's relation to its Victorian antecedents in art and architecture and contemporaneous developments in the understanding of collective memory. Between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the long-standing technology of glass manufacturing was "radically overhauled," quickly transforming urban experience and social consciousness through the mass production of plate glass (Trotter 2011, 54). …

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